Poetry: A Mirror, a Pencil and an Envelope. Seven Minutes with D. Nurkse and Nancy Mitchell
In this candid interview, D. Nurkse reflects on a long life in poetry and political activism, and reads an earlier poem The Physical and a new poem, Order to Disperse, published thirty-five years later, from the just released A County of Strangers, New And Selected Poems https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/692658/a-country-of-strangers-by-d-nurkse/
Below the video you’ll find five poems from this new and selected
collection, which Nurkse has so generously agreed to share with Plume.
I invited my mother to visit and watch. A woman being elected
President_ We sat in front of cable news. I swear we each thought of
holding hands. After twenty minutes, we began to fidget. She excused
herself to the bathroom. I chose to take a call. I buried my eyes in
Our city had grown so silent. Where were the ambulances, the low-
flying jets? A car passed with the rattle of a loose fan belt. A child
cried in the next building. I have to go, my mother said suddenly,
home to feed my Maltese.
I helped her into her coat and found her gloves. We hugged a little
stiffly. I heard her steps diminish in the corridor. I was left facing
the screen. I tore myself away and followed her-–she is old, old_ I
rode the next elevator down.
Were our streets ever so dark? The lamps were shining with a prissy
glow that disclosed nothing, that smudged whatever it touched. But I
saw a silhouette with her adamant shuffle and followed it into the
I watched from a block away as she hailed a cab, clambered in gimpily,
lit a cigarette and began chatting. The car speed away toward Queens.
So it is long ago, I thought, she can smoke and flirt. Perhaps I am
not even born yet.
And I began walking, endlessly, in our vast city. Doors flew open and
the faces there were the children who died in Birmingham, in Lowndes
County and Neshoba. But the high windows were blank and pulsed with a
shuddering blue light.
Caligula ordered the night city illuminated.
Every stoop, porch, or balcony was a stage.
He made the senators dress as prostitutes–
tight silk skirts, paste-on eyelashes.
Up to a matron to wriggle into a boy’s shorts.
Marcus Severus, one-armed veteran
of our labyrinthine border wars,
had to hobble into the amphitheater
armed with a plume, and attack a lion.
A plume_ We were fascinated.
We were all players, who was the audience?
The Emperor chose me, me, me, and me,
and slept with us. He was passive
as a bedpost, but listed his demands
in documents we had to sign in advance.
Slaves–who had been stockbrokers
or insurance agents a moment ago–-
carried triremes on their backs to Rome.
Sails billowed above our seven sacred hills.
Would it ever end? We were enthralled.
Every breath was a saga
when you long to skip to the finale.
We no longer washed, brushed our teeth,
or picked a scab–just him, him, him.
It was Cassius Chaerea who killed him–
that silent tribune he called ‘pansy.’
The Emperor lay on his golden bed.
We were mesmerized. All we could do
was compete to reconstruct the portents:
headless chicken racing all morning,
kitten born without eyes, huge cloud,
tiny cloud, cloud like a fist…
For a few hours the Chronicler
listened and scribbled, but soon
he grew bored, we bored ourselves,
so began Caligula’s slow death–
Caligula who so often said of a captive,
‘make him feel he’s really dying.’
Now we’re helpless as always,
faced with twilight, a child crying,
birdsong, the breeze, our seven steep hills.
Picnic By The Inland Sea
We understood we were hurtling into space
at eighteen miles per second, clouds of atoms
charged and polarized, each alone
in the abyss, and you wore your summer dress.
The light under the poplar was mottled
but the shade of the pines was feathered.
We were bundles of self-canceling voices–-
flight and response, punishment and reward,
hostile adoration, panic and certainty–
from long before the Bronze Age,
yet we made our own promises
by suppressed coughs or sneezes
and sat a little apart
but sometimes our eyes brushed.
We sipped Montepulciano from a paper cup
until the bottom darkened
but still it was not evening,
still the world was ending,
always we resented the breeze
for choosing and marking us,
still a song too short to sing
moved two famished sparrows
like pawns from branch to branch.
We made models: this is a moment of happiness,
this is a maple-shaded street, its yellow median line
littered with double wings: some day we might know such things
in our real lives, not just in desire.
We invented Cherryfield, Maine, nine pearl-gray Capes
with sagging porches held together by coats of gesso.
Behind the scrim of birches the Middle Branch River
glittered like the galvanized roof to a tackle shed.
We were quick and replicated a shack with a chalk sign
CHUBBS SMELTS CROAKERS; there was barely time to read it
before it whirled into the past. And she who was driving said,
we know the coming disaster intimately but the present is
Which disaster, I wondered, sexual or geological? But I was shy:
her beauty was like a language she didn’t speak and had never
Then we were in Holyfield and it was the hour when the child
waves from a Welcome mat, his eyes full of longing, before
inward to his enforced sleep. We waved back but we were gone.
The hour when two moths bump together above a pail of lures.
The hour when the Coleman lamp flickers in the screen house
above the blur of cards being shuffled and dealt amazingly fast.
All my life I have been dying, of hope and self pity,
and an unknown force has been knitting me back together.
It happens in secret. I want to touch her and I touch her
and it registers on the glittering gauges that make the car
and swifter and we come to the mountains and this is all I ever wanted:
to enter the moth’s pinhead eye, now, and never return.
The man beside me in the line
in the Draft Board lobby
told me he’d just fasted nine days.
He said once before he’d fasted eighteen
just to clear the mucus from his system
and once for twelve to dominate his passions,
but this was the first time
the visions he saw were Satanic:
as he tried to describe them his face
began to tic and he composed himself
so he would not seem like us common frauds:
he combed his hair in front of the see-thru mirror
and breathed deep, and recalled that the quota
was almost zero, the war had shifted to the air.